Bliss Parsons, wife of Cornet Joseph Parsons, daughter of Thomas and Margaret
Bliss of Hartford, Ct., both very prominent families, was born in England
about 1628 and came to this country with her parents when she was about
eight years old. She was eleven or twelve when they decided on still another
move, to the rude little settlement of Hartford. There for a time life
stablized, and Mary grew to womanhood as an average member of an ordinary
New England community. In 1646 she married Joseph Parsons, a successful
merchant, and went to live in Springfield. Henceforth, her life would
be increasingly set apart from the average.
In 1654 the
Parsonses moved to Northampton. The family, which included eleven children,
became members of the church. Local tradition has remembered Mary as being
"possessed of great beauty and talents, but...not very amiable...exclusive
in the choice of her associates, and...of haughty manners."
soon after the Parsons family moved to Northampton, Joseph Parsons brought
an action for slander against Sarah Bridgeman, charging that Sarah had
accused Mary, his wife, of being a witch. On the docket of the Middlesex
County Court, for its session of October 7, 1656, is found the following
entry: "Joseph Parsons, plaintiff, against Sarah, the wife of James Bridgman,
defendant, in an action of the case for slandering her [Parson's wife]
in her name. This action, by consent of both parties, was referred to
the judgment of the Honored Bench of Magistrates." A separate document
records the magistrates' finding in favor of the plaintiff and their order
that the defendant make "public acknowledgment" of the wrong she had done.
The acknowledgment was to be a dual performance - once in the town of
Northampton and again at Springfield. Failure to fulfill either part of
this requirement would result in a fine of £10.
against Mary Parsons was that following hard upon the heels of any disagreement
or quarrel between Mary Parsons and any member of the Bridgeman family,
a fatal disease would seize upon some horse, cow, or pig, belonging to
the Bridgeman family and, as the disease could not be accounted for in
any other way, it must be the result of Mary's uncanny influence exercised
by way of revenge.
set of testimonies was recorded at Northampton on or about the 20th of
June. For example: Robert Bartlett testifieth that George Langdon told
him the last winter that Goody Bridgman and Goody Branch were speaking
about Mary Parsons concerning her being a witch. And the said George told
to the said Robert that my [Langdon's] wife being there said she could
not think so - which the said Goody Bridgman seemed to be distates with.
As also [according to Langdon] they had hard thoughts of the wife of the
said Robert [Bartlett] because she was intimate with the said Mary Parsons."
depositions in this early group enlarge on the gossip theme. The same
Hannah Langdon mentioned in Bartlett's statement testified that "Sarah
Bridgman ... told her that her boy when his knee was sore cried out of
the wife of Joseph Parsons." Bridgman had also alleged widespread "jealousies
that the wife of Joseph Parsons was not right." For a time Langdon herself
had entertained suspicions of Mary Parsons, but recently "it hath pleased
God to help her over them, ... and [she] is sorry she should have [had]
hard thoughts of her upon no better grounds." These depositions converged
on the issue of what Goody Bridgman had said.
major group of papers in the case carries a date several weeks later.
They were taken before a different official, and probably in a different
place (Springfield). They expressed a different viewpoint, as the recorder
noted at the top of the opening page: "Testimonies Taken on Behalf of
Sarah, the wife of James Bridgman, the 11th day of August, 1656." The
Bridgmans themselves supplied lengthy testimony on the events which had
caused them to suspect Goody Parsons.
summer the Bridgemans' eleven-year-old son had suffered a bizarre injury
while tending their cows: "In a swamp there came something and gave him
a great blow on the had...and going a little further he...stumbled...and
put his knee out of joint." Subsequently, the knee was "set" but it would
not heal properly - and he was in grievous torture about a month." Then
the boy discovered the cause of his sufferings: "He cried out [that] Goody
Parsons would pull off his knee, [saying] 'there she sits on the shelf.'
...I and my husband labored to quiet him, but could hardly hold him in
bed for he was very fierce. We told him there was nobody...'Yea," says
he, 'there she is; do you not see her? There she runs away and a black
mouse follows her.' And this he said many times and with great violence...and
he was like to die in our apprehension." At about the same time the Bridgmans
had also lost an infant son:
being brought to bed, about three days after as I was sitting up, having
the child in my lap, there was something that gave a great blow on the
door. And that very instant, as I apprehended, my child changed. And I
thought with myself and told my girl that I was afraid my child would
die...Presently... I looking towards the door, through a hole...I saw...two
women pass by the door, with white clothes on their heads; then I concluded
my child would die indeed. And I sent my girl out to see who they were,
but she could see nobody, and this made me think there is wickedness in
of the court was in favor of the plaintiff and against Mrs. Bridgeman,
and she was ordered to make public acknowledgment of her fault at Northampton
and Springfield, and that her husband, James Bridgman, pay to plaintiff
10£ and cost of court.
But the charge
of witchcraft against Mary Parsons did not end with the judgment in the
slander suit. Her name was cleared, but only from a legal standpoint.
In the years that followed, her husband prospered ever more greatly, her
children grew in number and (mostly) flourished, her mother and brothers
sank the Bliss family roots deep into the CT Valley. But her reputation
for witchcraft hung on.
In 1674 the
whole matter was renewed in court - with the important difference that
now Mary Parsons was cast as defendant. Unfortunately, most of the evidence
from this later case has disappeared. All that survives is the summary
material from the dockets of the two courts involved. In August 1674,
a young woman of Northampton, Mary Bartlett, had died rather suddenly.
She was twenty-two, wife of Samuel Bartlett and the mother of an infant
son. More importantly, she was a daughter of Sarah and James Bridgman.
Her husband and father jointly believed, as they later testified in court,
that "she came to her end by some unlawful and unnatural means, ... viz.
by means of some evil instrument." And they had distinct ideas about the
person most likely to have used such means.
29, the Hampshire County Court received "diverse testimonies" on the matter.
Mary Parsons was also there - on her own initiative: "She having intimation
that such things were bruited abroad, and that she should be called in
question..."the fact that Mrs. Parsons voluntarily appeared before the
court desiring to clear herself of such an execrable crime, and that subsequently
she argued her own case before the court must not be overlooked. On both
these occasions she met her accusers boldly, protesting her innocence,
and showing 'how clear she was of such a crime.' In this trial Mrs. Parsons
was called to speak for herself and from the meager report upon record,
undoubtedly did so most effectively." The court examined her, considered
all the evidence, and deferred further action to its next meeting in November.
There followed a second deferral "for special reasons" (about which the
court did not elaborate).
5, 1675, the county magistrates conducted their most extended hearing
of the case. The previous depositions were reviewed and (apparently) some
new ones were taken. Both Samuel Bartlett and Mary Parsons were present
in person once again.
"called to speak for herself, [and] she did assert her own innocency,
often mentioning ... how clear she was of such a crime, and that the righteous
God knew her innocency - with whom she had left her cause." The magistrates
decided that final jurisdiction in such matters belonged not to them but
to the Court of Assistants in Boston. Still, considering "the season"
and "the remoteness" [i.e., of their own court from Boston] and "the difficulties,
if not incapabilities, or persons there to appear," they determined to
do their utmost "in inquriing into the case." Among other things, they
appointed a committee of "soberdized, chaste women" to conduct a body-search
on Mary Parsons, to see "whether any marks of witchcraft might appear."
(The result was "an account" which the court did not disclose.) Eventually,
all the documents were gathered and forwarded to Boston.
At the same
court, and apparently as part of the same proceeding, "some testimony"
was offered "reflecting on John Parsons." John was Mary's second son:
he was twenty-four at the time, and as yet unmarried. How and why he should
have been implicated in the charges against his mother cannot now be discovered;
but the evidence was in any case unpersuasive. The court did "not find...any
such weight whereby he should be prosecute on suspicion of witchcraft"
and discharged him accordingly.
the case against Mary Parsons moved towards its final round. On March
2, Mary was taken to Boston, "presented" at the Court of Assistants, and
formally indicted by the grand jury. Thereupon the court ordered her commitment
to prison until "her further trial." The trial came some ten weeks later
(May 13, 1675). An imposing roster of Assistants lined the bench: the
governor, the deputy-governor, and a dozen magistrates (including her
husband's old associate, John Pynchon). However, her fate rested with
"the jury of trails for life and death" - twelve men, of no particular
distinction, from Boston and the surrounding towns. The indictment was
read one last time: "Mary Parsons, the wife of Joseph Parsons...being
instigated by the Devil, hath...entered into familiarity with the Devil,
and committed several acts of witchcraft on the person or persons of one
or more." The evidence in the case was also read. And "the prisoner at
the bar, holding up her hand and pleading not guilty, ...[put] herself
on her trial." The tension of this moment must have been very great, but
it does not come through in the final, spare notation of the court recorder:
"The jury brought in their verdict. They found her not guilty. And so
she was discharged."
gave her a full acquittal of the crime. Of Mary's life subsequent to 1674
there is little direct information. She and her husband would eventually
give up their home in Northampton and move back to Springfield. Joseph
would died in 1683, leaving a substantial estate of £2,088, and Mary would
enter a very long widowhood.
thereafter in Springfield, completed the rearing of her numerous progeny,
and saw her sons - and then her grandsons - assume positions of prominence
in several CT Valley towns. Death claimed her in January, 1712, when she
was about eighty-five years old. She was not again tried for witchcraft,
but neither was she ever free from local suspicion.
I'd be happy to
exchange family information.
Please send e-mail to Sam Behling.
See lineage of
Read the Biography of Mary's father, Thomas Bliss
Read the Biography of Mary's brother, Nathaniel Bliss
Read the Biography of Mary's nephew, Samuel Bliss
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